PATRIOTS DAY (2016) review
written by: Peter Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer
produced by: Scott Stuber, Dylan Clark, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Hutch Parker, Dorothy Aufiero, Stephen Stapinski & Michael Radutzky
directed by: Peter Berg
rated: R (for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use)
runtime: 133 min.
U.S. release date: December 21, 2016 (NY/LA) & January 13, 2017
Last January there was the Benghazi movie from Michael Bay and now comes “Patriot’s Day”, directing by Peter Berg, who has a style that’s been compared in the past to the concussive and bombastic approach Bay is known for. I used to be able to see that comparison, yet I’ve always preferred Berg, a director who’s proven he’s more concerned with suspenseful thrillers populated with relatable characters. This was noticeable in his last movie, “Deepwater Horizon” which was released just a few months ago as well as “Patriots Day” an intense dramatization of the horrific 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. What you get out of this impressively made thriller probably depends on how you feel about movies that meticulously re-enact and graphically depict recent tragedies. Although I have issues with this subgenre in general, Berg turns in a surprisingly respectful and emotional movie.
As the movie opens, we’re introduced to a plain-clothed Boston cop, Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), who’s in the process of dropping in on what appears to be an escalated domestic dispute. He’s assisted by a couple younger uniformed cops and eventually BPD Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) shows up after hearing about the activity on the police radio. It’s a sharply edited opening scene, quickly introducing viewers to the movie’s protagonist, a composite character inspired by an amalgam of real-life law enforcement officers, successfully communicating who these guys are with some natural in-jokes and hints at a troubled backstory for Wahlberg’s gateway character.
We know the April 13th bombing is coming, but Berg (who co-wrote the screenplay with , Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, based on the book Boston Strong by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge) concerns himself with introducing certain characters who will be affected by this devastating explosions that occurred at 2:49pm. We meet soon-to-be victims, Jessica Kensky (Rachel Bresnahan “House of Cards”) and Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea “Madame Secretary”), a young Chinese man named Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang “Silicon Valley”) who’s excited about his new Mercedes-Benz SUV and friendly MIT security officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking “Goat”). They all feel like people we know, friends or colleagues we see everyday, adding to the relatable quality of the movie.
While there’s an obviousness to this chronological set-up that leads to the actual recreation, Berg stops in on an assortment of characters we will undoubtedly see soon enough and this tour is handled with great balance and winds up offering portrayals that feel natural and real, free from chintzy or trite characterizations, getting us genuinely invested despite our awareness of it.
After the two bombs are detonated during the race, where Tommy is working security surrounded by packed sidewalks of onlookers, there is confusion and chaos as injured runners and bystanders are strewn across Boylston Street as police and first responders meet the needs of the injured and determine what to do next. Some are running for safety while incoming runners are unaware of what has occurred. It’s insane work by cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler and editors Colby Parker Jr. and Gabriel Fleming, all of whom are responsible for capturing an immersive and shocking sequence of sudden moments that destroy and devastate in a matter of seconds. It seems cliche to say, but you truly get an idea of what went down in those quick, shocking moments.
In no time, Davis arrives on the scene with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach, “Pitch”) and FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) and it is determined that this is an act of terrorism. The trio know full well the ramifications of this call and the necessary work that must go into investigating what happened and what could possibly occur again. A massive command center is set-up in a warehouse where teams of agents scour through surveillance video and even recreate the entire street scene using physical evidence from the blast site, in order to figure out who did this.
Well, we know who did this – not just because we may come to the movie with an awareness of the actual events (thanks to 24/7 news coverage on both cable and social media), but because Berg and his fellow screenwriters include the culprits. In the days following the bombing, we came to know who the terrorist brothers were and here they are gradually introduced just like many of the other characters in the movie. They are somewhat familiar, in that there usually is one brother who is more into what they are setting out to do and that would be violent-prone Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze, soon to be seen in “24: Legacy”), while his younger brother, Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff, “Coming Through the Rye”), is a bit more reticent yet submissive. “Patriots Day” doesn’t depict them as the stock bad guys they could’ve been. We don’t sympathize with them, but like the other characters we spend time with, they are humanized enough for us to take an interest in their next moves. We know that the pair will eventually encounter some of the other characters we’ve met and that due to severely heightened emotions, anxiety and tension, the situations these brothers are involved in never end well.
We get something of an idea of what their motives are, but that takes place during the surprisingly subtle revelations that are hinted at during a riveting interrogation scene. Easily one of the more memorable moments of the movie is when a mysterious police investigator (Khandi Alexander,”Scandal”), questions Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell (played by an indistinguishable, Melissa Benoist, “Supergirl”) at the command center. It’s a mesmerizing confrontation between two characters, portrayed by two captivating women who hold their own respective intensity and a welcome interruption from all the testosterone we see in the movie.
Obviously, most of what the world learned about the Tsarnaev brothers came from the interrogation of the injured Dzhokhar that took place in the hospital after his capture in Watertown, which is just outside of Boston. This is assumedly where the screenwriters get their information from, even though the focus is mostly on the authorities in charge of tracking them down in the days after the bombing. While “Patriots Day” isn’t too concerned with delving into the dimensions of these brothers or Tamerlan’s wife, the characters are more realized than I would’ve imagined, leaving me to wonder more about them. We learn that their plan was to drive to Times Square after Boston, but then what? With all the anxiety and paranoia of being pursued, the brothers were clearly coming undone and ultimately kind of inept – despite learning how to build explosive devices online – so, it was a matter of time before they tripped up, especially since they were working alone.
I wound up being much more absorbed by “Patriots Day” than I thought I would be. Partly because I’m a sucker for a good procedural, which this becomes, but also because I felt no need for such a movie. There’s no way I can not think of the survivors and their families, as well as those who lost loved ones in the bombing, while watching this or any movie like it, that depicts real-life tragedies. I felt the same way with “Deepwater Horizon”, but like that movie, “Patriots Day” is respectful and cautious with its subjects and mindful of not veering into exploitation with its recreation. Do we want to see a ground-level recreation of the sudden explosions though? Probably not, but the goal is pay tribute and respect to those who died, survived and responded. Nevertheless, leading up to the actual bombing, I found myself getting sick to my stomach, aware of what’s to come and knowing full well there are some who will choose not to see this movie.
Once the brothers are identified by surveillance cameras and the hunt begins, the intensity escalates as Tommy and the rest of the BPD search surrounding neighborhoods at all hours. When the brothers make their way to Watertown, we reconnect with Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (a stalwart J.K. Simmons), who we met during the introduction as he stopped at Dunkin Donuts (an establishment that plays prominently in the movie) while making his morning rounds. Pugliese joins his officers in a last-stand showdown on Laurel Street after midnight on April 16th. Berg and his crew turn this dimly lit residential street into one of the most harrowing moments of the movie, delivering a chaotic war zone of bullets, explosions and mayhem. It’s an impressively choreographed sequence that captures the frenzy and panic of the surrounded brothers and the approaching police officers, all of whom are unprepared for what transpires. The fact that I’d be interested in watching this sequence again, supports my claim that Berg has become one of the few American directors adept at filming fluid action that is easy to follow.
“Patriots Day” isn’t without its problems though. In many areas, it lacks a needed subtlety, allowing an inevitable amount of jingoism and patriotism to permeate throughout the movie. There’s also a certain amount of bravado and “Boston Strong” that becomes distracting and borderline ridiculous. When a cop is being barraged by bullets, yet manages to shout, “Welcome to Watertown, motherfuckers!” and precedes to return fire with a squinting grimace, it feels like he’s in a movie and not an intense real-life moment. The same can be said for a scene where we watch Den Meng bravely escape from the Tsarnaev brothers. There’s no way a real person under such extreme duress and alarm would stop to curse out his captor before making a quick escape. Apparently, that’s the tone in a movie that could’ve been called “Profanity Day”. Just about every character has replaced their “ums” with “offing” as they spout this or that. I get it, this is blue-collar Boston talk, but when viewers begin to notice it while watching the movie, that means they’re taken out of the movie.
Another problem is Wahlberg’s Tommy, who happens to be involved in every aspect of the movie, when he really doesn’t need to be. To be clear, Wahlberg the actor isn’t the problem, but when the FBI calls him back to the command center because he is supposedly the only guy who knows Boylston Street and when he’s off patrolling residential streets in his own vehicle with a spotlight, searching for the bombers, it seems odd to follow one specific character when we know that the entire city is in lockdown and hundreds of authorities are searching for the bombers. It seems almost laughable that Tommy is needed in just about every step of the investigation. At the same time, Wahlberg is never showy or an upstaging presence. Like his work in “Deepwater Horizon”, he imbues his character with a very lived-in disposition, unconcerned with his own welfare and focusing on the job at hand. Thankfully, he’s not the one to physically take out either of the Tsarnaev brothers, although he’s there, of course.
I was surprised to find two Wahlberg scenes that stood out. One is when he stops at his home after the bombing. Still in shock after witnessing the gruesome carnage, he has to shake off his family members and friends who’ve been glued to his television like the rest of the world, in order to sit in his dining room and cool off. This is the moment where he breaks down in the arms of his wife, Carol (Michelle Monaghan), releasing emotional tears from his ordeal. Another is a poignant conversation an exhausted Tommy has with Police Superintendent William Evans (James Colby) just before Dzhokhar is found hiding in a boat behind a Watertown home. It’s a reflective talk that essentially touches on love overcoming hate, yet doesn’t feel forced or rushed and has just the right amount of introspection that you would assume Tommy is capable of (the guy doesn’t hold a doctorate, after all and we already know his preference for profanity). Despite the screenplay overusing him, these two moments definitely offer audiences a needed opportunity to connect to the character.
“Patriots Day” is boosted by a score from maestros Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who provide a combination of propulsive electronics and contemplative piano work. It’s a score that works really well in a movie that ends with something of a mini-documentary that includes survivors and police officers who responded at the bomb site and participated in the manhunt. There were 6 deaths total (including Tamerlan Tsarnaev) and 280 non-fatal injuries on that fateful day and seeing footage of a married couple who lost limbs eventually run the same marathon with their prosthetic legs was the only moment I broke down and got teary-eyed. It made me wish that Berg would’ve spread this documentary-style footage throughout the movie to get us invested even more in the lives of those involved.
Regardless, “Patriots Day” isn’t just a throwaway January movie or a cheap way to capitalize on a horrific event. Underneath its action-oriented, profanity-leaden procedural exterior, there’s an unexpectedly sensitive and heartbreaking look at terror and trauma.